By Norman J. Ornstein
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; A19
In the 1950s, Democratic senators from the solidly Democratic South uniformly supported segregation and opposed civil rights and voting rights bills. They dutifully spent long hours on the Senate floor filibustering such efforts. Legend has it that during one marathon filibuster, after Olin Johnston of South Carolina, a populist liberal on economic matters, handed off the baton to Strom Thurmond, Johnston went into the cloakroom where many of his colleagues were seated, gestured back toward the Senate floor, and said, "Old Strom, he really believes that [expletive]."
This story came to mind with the recent blizzard of attacks on Barack Obama by Republican presidential wannabes and other office-seekers, along with their allies on cable television and talk radio. The most extravagant rhetoric has come out of the gathering of Southern Republicans in New Orleans, led by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who called Obama "the most radical president in American history" and urged his partisan audience to stop Obama's "secular, socialist machine."
At the same conference, Liz Cheney, the former vice president's daughter who is often mentioned as a possible Senate candidate from Virginia, fiercely attacked Obama's foreign policy as "apologize for America, abandon our allies and appease our enemies." And last week the ubiquitous Sarah Palin said of the arms-control treaty Obama signed with Russia, "No administration in America's history would, I think, ever have considered such a step," likening it to a kid telling others in a playground fight, "Go ahead, punch me in the face and I'm not going to retaliate."
On talk radio, Rush Limbaugh accused Obama of administering "statist-assisted suicide." Talk show host Michael Savage called Obama's health-care plan "socialized medicine" and described the nuclear treaty as "insane." These are not isolated comments; the terms "radical," "socialist" and even "totalitarian" are bandied about frequently by Obama opponents, including congressional and other GOP leaders.
To one outside the partisan and ideological wars, charges of radicalism, socialism, retreat and surrender are, frankly, bizarre. The Democrats' health-reform plan includes no public option and relies on managed competition through exchanges set up much like those for federal employees. The individual mandate in the plan sprang from a Heritage Foundation idea that was endorsed years ago by a range of conservatives and provided the backbone of the Massachusetts plan that was crafted and, until recently, heartily defended by Mitt Romney. It would be fair to describe the new act as Romneycare crossed with the managed-competition bill proposed in 1994 by Republican Sens. John Chafee, David Durenberger, Charles Grassley and Bob Dole -- in other words, as a moderate Republican plan. Among its supporters is Durenberger, no one's idea of a radical socialist.
What about Obama's other domestic initiatives? The stimulus was anything but radical -- indeed, many mainstream observers, me included, thought it was too timid in size and scope given the enormity of the problems. The plan could have been more focused on swift and directed stimulus. It included such diversions as a fix for the alternative minimum tax -- at the insistence of Grassley. And it excluded some "shovel-ready" ideas such as school construction -- at the insistence of Republican Sen. Susan Collins. It did not include the kind of public works jobs program employed by Franklin Roosevelt. Nonetheless, it has been widely credited with ameliorating the worst effects of the downturn and helping to move us back toward economic growth. The widely criticized Troubled Assets Relief Program -- initiated by Obama's predecessor -- is now returning to the Treasury most of the taxpayer money laid out to keep us from depression and deflation.
It is true that, in an attempt to head off a meltdown stemming from a collapse of the automobile industry, Obama engineered a temporary takeover of two of the Big Three auto companies. But nothing suggests that this is anything but temporary, and Obama has resisted many calls to take over major banks and other financial institutions.
The nuclear treaty with Russia excoriated by Palin, Savage and others was endorsed by Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the GOP's resident foreign policy expert, and it was crafted under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was first appointed to that post by George W. Bush. Obama's approach to terrorism has been similar to Bush's, while more aggressively targeting leaders of terrorist groups; his larger foreign policy has received the seal of approval from James Baker, former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan and secretary of state to George H.W. Bush. Obama's energy policies include more nuclear power and more offshore drilling. Obama's education policies have received wide acclaim across the political spectrum. The "secular" president has shored up and supported federal faith-based initiatives, to the dismay of many in his base.
Looking at the range of Obama domestic and foreign policies, and his agency and diplomatic appointments, my conclusion is clear: This president is a mainstream, pragmatic moderate, operating in the center of American politics; center-left, perhaps, but not left of center. The most radical president in American history? Does Newt Gingrich, a PhD in history, really believe that [expletive]?
The writer is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.